The language of collective compassion has been abandoned in
By Jeffrey Sachs
October 4, 2010
President Barack Obama is likely to face difficulty passing
progressive legislation after the November elections.
following the upcoming November elections. President Barack
Obama will lose any hope for passing progressive legislation
aimed at helping the poor or the environment. Indeed, all
major legislation and reforms are likely to be stalemated
until 2013, following a new presidential election. An already
bad situation marked by deadlock and vitriol is likely to
worsen, and the world should not expect much leadership from
a bitterly divided
compassion has more or less been abandoned. Both political
parties serve their rich campaign contributors, while
proclaiming they defend the middle class. Neither party even
mentions the poor - who now officially make up 15% of the
population, but in fact are even more numerous when we count
all those households struggling with healthcare, housing,
jobs and other needs.
The Republican party recently issued a "Pledge to
explain its beliefs and campaign promises. The document is
filled with nonsense, such as the fatuous claim high taxes
and over-regulation explain
is also filled with propaganda. A quote from President John F
Kennedy states that high tax rates can strangle the economy,
but Kennedy was speaking half a century ago, when the top
marginal tax rates were twice what they are today. Most of
all, the Republican platform is devoid of compassion.
apart because of the collapse of its core values. American
productivity is among the highest in the world. Average
national income per person is about $46,000 - enough not only
to live on, but to prosper. Yet the country is in the throes
of an ugly moral crisis.
Income inequality is at historic highs, but the rich claim
they have no responsibility to the rest of society. They
refuse to come to the aid of the destitute, and defend tax
cuts at every opportunity. Almost everybody complains, almost
everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term
interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of
looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.
What passes for American political debate is a contest
between the parties to give bigger promises to the middle
class, mainly in the form of budget-busting tax cuts at a
time when the fiscal deficit is already more than 10% of GDP.
Americans seem to believe that they have a natural right to
government services without paying taxes. In the American
political lexicon, taxes are defined as a denial of liberty.
There was a time, not long ago, when Americans talked of
ending poverty at home and abroad. Lyndon Johnson's "war on
poverty" in the mid 1960s reflected an era of national
optimism and the belief that society should make collective
efforts to solve common problems, such as poverty, pollution
rebuild poor communities, to fight air and water pollution,
and to ensure healthcare for the elderly. Then the deep
surge of consumerism and advertising, seemed to end an era of
shared sacrifice for the common good.
For 40 years, compassion in politics receded. Ronald Reagan
gained popularity by cutting social benefits for the poor
(claiming the poor cheated to receive extra payments). Bill
politician even dares to mention help for poor people.
The big campaign contributors to both parties pay to ensure
their vested interests dominate political debates. That means
both parties increasingly defend the interests of the rich,
though Republicans do so slightly more than Democrats. Even a
modest tax increase on the rich is unlikely to find support
in American politics.
The result of all this is likely to be a long-term decline of
collectively in their common future.
rich society for a long time to come, but one that is
increasingly divided and unstable. Fear and propaganda may
lead to more US-led international wars, as in the past decade.
And what is happening in
it is a highly diverse society. Racism and anti-immigrant
sentiments are an important part of the attack on the poor â€"
or at least the reason why so many are willing to heed the
propaganda against helping the poor. As other societies
grapple with their own increasing diversity, they may follow
Swedes recently gave enough votes to a rightwing, anti-
immigrant party to give it representation in parliament,
reflecting a growing backlash against the rising number of
immigrants in Swedish society. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's
government has tried to regain popularity with the working
class by deporting Roma migrants, a target of widespread
hatred and ethnic attacks.
Both examples show that Europe, like the
the politics of division, as our societies become more
The lesson from
guarantee of wellbeing or political stability. American
society has become increasingly harsh, where the richest
Americans buy their way to political power and the poor are
abandoned to their fate. In their private lives, Americans
have become addicted to consumerism, which drains their time,
savings, attention and inclination to engage in acts of
The world should beware. Unless we break the ugly trends of
big money in politics and rampant consumerism, we risk
winning economic productivity at the price of our humanity.